W2W4 previews the weekend’s action by highlighting its most compelling storylines as Chelsea and Liverpool go head-to-head in a top-four battle while Arsenal say goodbye to Arsene Wenger.
Liverpool seek to avoid Chelsea chain reaction
The top four has looked settled for some time following Chelsea’s woeful start to 2018, but the Blues can turn the screw on Liverpool with victory at Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool’s progression to the Champions League final has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, but the Reds have allowed Chelsea to sneak up on them in the Premier League. Three straight victories for Antonio Conte’s side, combined with Liverpool dropping four points against the bottom two, has given Sunday’s game greater importance than previously anticipated.
If Chelsea win, and beat Huddersfield in their game in hand, then Jurgen Klopp’s side could enter a tense final day needing a victory at home to Brighton to guarantee their place.
Liverpool’s fate is still very much in their own hands, of course, but Klopp will want to get the job done this weekend. A point at Stamford Bridge would likely be enough, given the Reds’ vastly superior goal difference, meaning that the focus can finally turn to preparing for Real Madrid. Should Liverpool lose, then suddenly the draws against West Brom and Stoke will weigh heavy on Klopp’s mind. A repeat at home to Brighton could allow Chelsea to overtake their rivals right at the death.
It is a scenario worth considering, not merely for the significance of Liverpool dropping out of the top four, but for what it might mean ahead of the Champions League final. The team’s confidence would be affected, knowing they had only themselves to blame for such a costly blip. Could they recover from the mental anguish before meeting Madrid?
Klopp has surely reminded his players that this nightmare end to the season is still possible if Chelsea win on Sunday. Liverpool need to seize this opportunity to look after their own destiny and look forward to the bigger prize ahead.
For Liverpool, read Tottenham
Liverpool aren’t the only team to fear a Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge, with Tottenham also yet to secure their top-four status.
Spurs travel to West Brom on Saturday in a fixture that would have been certain to yield three points a month ago. But under Darren Moore’s management the Baggies have been revitalised, beating Manchester United at Old Trafford, rescuing a point against Liverpool and sneaking a 1-0 win over Newcastle. They still need everything to go their way to survive, but at least they have shown some fight since Alan Pardew’s departure.
That will concern Mauricio Pochettino ahead of the trip to the Hawthorns as Spurs look to achieve their primary objective. They should be confident, ending the campaign with home matches against Newcastle and Leicester, but in football nothing is guaranteed.
Farewell, Arsene Wenger
It will be a poignant afternoon at the Emirates Stadium as Arsene Wenger takes charge of his final Arsenal home game 22 years after he first appeared in the dugout at Highbury. Hopefully the Gunners won’t have to worry about empty seats for this one.
After they lost the opportunity for the perfect farewell with defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals, the Arsenal players will want to respond on Sunday. There will be a sombre mood in the squad after missing out on a European final, but it would be a shame for that to overshadow an occasion when Wenger should feel the love of everyone associated with the club.
Such occasions have a history of going wrong, with Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in Steven Gerrard’s final game at Anfield serving as a recent reminder. Burnley will be ready to spoil the party, and the Gunners must do everything to ensure that doesn’t happen.
This was the scenario David Wagner hoped to avoid. With three matches remaining, Huddersfield are in a precarious position, knowing they must take points off Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal to be certain of survival.
It is huge task given the Terriers’ form in the second half of the season, and one which starts with a trip to a City side who are still striving to break the 100-point barrier.
Wagner will remind his players that they held Pep Guardiola’s side to a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup last season when they were still in the Championship — a hard-fought point on Sunday would be a significant step to securing their Premier League status.
If Huddersfield are feeling the pressure, then imagine how frayed Swansea’s nerves must be, two points further down the table.
After five wins in Carlos Carvalhal’s first nine matches, the Swans’ form has collapsed, failing to find victory in any of their last six outings. Carvalhal hit back at his critics this week, who have questioned his perceived negative tactics, but the only real response is to beat Bournemouth on Saturday.
Beyond that, Swansea face Southampton and Stoke at home in a final week that has served up two huge battles at the bottom.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger